It was the evening of October 18th, 1985. I remember the exact date, because I had accompanied my (then) boyfriend, Tom, and his mother to a Tex-Mex restaurant to celebrate her birthday. Tom’s mom and I had spent little time together during the two years I had been dating her son. I felt as buoyant as the bright, helium balloons hugging the ceiling of the cantina. At the same time, I was nervous and anxious to please. Mrs. Phillips was a “proper” Southern lady.
Later that evening, Tom and I—his mother was not with us—were sitting on his ugly, sturdy couch striped in bachelor-brown colors, when he declared: “Well, I guess we ought to get married.”
There was no kneeling or “prithee,” but a decisive suggestion by this man who had been pegged by his friends and family as “not the marrying kind.”
I don’t remember if I said yes to the question hidden in his declaration, but I do remember sliding from the couch to the floor where my purse was and retrieving a snippet of a newspaper ad hidden in my wallet. It was a picture of an engagement ring. I tossed it into my beloved’s hand.
“How long have you been carrying this around?,” he asked.
“Oh, for about a year,” I replied with exaggerated eyelash flutter.
We were to be married almost ten weeks later on December 21st. The planning was fast and furious. Early on, I took my future mother-in-law to lunch to share the plans with her. In her gracious way, she informed me I had misspelled Tom’s father’s name in our engagement announcement in the local newspaper.
Later that week, I found out that Tom’s father had died on DECEMBER 21st in 1972. Almost blubbering, I approached Mrs. Phillips and apologized for my—for setting the date for the wedding on the calendar day her husband had died.
She tried to console me and said: “Now, we will have something happy to celebrate on that day.”
A longing for my childhood home ambushed my heart when Tom and I were driving home to Memphis after a three day honeymoon spent in the Ozark Mountains. It was Christmas Eve. I felt like a little girl again on a night-time car ride “gone looking at the lights” in the country. As Tom and I passed decorated houses, I exclaimed about the Santas and reindeer on roofs, hundreds of lights strung on double-wide trailers, and the front-yard nativity scenes with plastic Holy Families.
The transition from honeymoon to the first Christmas dinner with my husband’s family felt awkward to me. Tom’s mother was not my mother. I did not feel free to hug her or re-share the details of the wedding with her. I wanted my mother. Mrs. Phillips was kind, but I sensed a welcome cloaked in caution. Since Tom’s father had died, it had always been her and her sons at the Christmas table.
I sat still and silent—a feat for me—as the gift-giving and unwrapping began. We took turns opening our cards and reading the sentiments aloud. Gifts were opened. Quiet thank-yous were said. The wrapping paper was smoothed of its wrinkles, folded and saved to be used again.
I was a naive bride immersed in my own sorrow about leaving the familiar and cleaving to a stranger whose holiday tradition seemed stripped of joy. I was unable to recognize the power of grief to isolate and insulate a family from intrusion.
All I could think about were the festivities taking place at my aunt and uncle’s house three hundred miles away. Torn, crunched wrapping paper would carpet the floor, and ribbon would stick to shoes. The tree would be real and huge. Someone would be banging out “Silent Night” on the out-of-tune piano, and the women in the kitchen would be having simultaneous conversations about new babies, holiday weight gain, and which gospel quartet would sing-in the New Year at church.
I wanted to go home.